The airing of an exclusive 60 Minutes interview with a tobacco industry insider is cancelled because of corporate pressure.
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Despite the praise for Heat, it was not until 1999 that Michael Mann had his Academy Awards coming-out party; The Insider was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Russell Crowe). The film retells a notorious CBS affair; the subject of a corporate takeover and a major lawsuit launched by tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson, the television network scuttles an exclusive 60 Minutes investigative report. The piece details how B & W is manipulating ingredients to improve upon the addictive quality of cigarettes. Russell Crowe produces his finest performance as the seriously flawed whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, who along with crusading segment producer Lowell Bergman (an equally engaging Al Pacino) helped to galvanize Americans against the unethical business practices of Big Tobacco.
“What was important to Eric Roth [co-screenwriter] and myself from the outset was that there be nothing didactic or patronizing about this film.” stated Mann. “I would be offended if somebody had the arrogance and the presumption to tell me what I ought to do in my life. This film is not about you all ought not to smoke or you all ought to smoke. That's an individual choice.” He went on to explain, “What this film is about is corporate power and malfeasance. And huge businesses that are highly profitable, that are really in a drug trade. From their point of view, they have a wonderful business -- they have a market addicted to their product.”
As to what drew him to recount the real life event, the moviemaker replied, “What attracted me was the way Lowell and Jeffrey were such opposites -- if they met each other in a social context, I don't think one would see much of anything in the other. But here were these two men thrown together with only one element in common. Both of them are not living inside the circumscribed "I" of just sheer gratification in careers; both of them recognize that there's something else in life. They both have superegos that tell you ‘you ought to be this way’ or ‘you ought to do this somehow,’ and they do have a sort of respect for each other's actions, character and principles. That there's nothing else in common was great, because it brings into higher relief their sole common component.”
Lowell Bergman was not unknown to Michael Mann for the two of them were at one point discussing doing a couple of projects together. “When I was in post-production on Heat, in the fall of '95,” stated the director, “Lowell was going through all this. I was one of about 10 or 12 people that he would call up to discuss these issues. He'd say, ‘You'll never guess what Don Hewitt said to me today. I don't believe what's happening here. I have relations with people and all of a sudden I'm walking through like a pariah; as I walk past them their eyes make it seem like I'm not there.’"
Unlike Heat which had action sequences punctuated by automatic gunfire, Mann had to improvise and focus the story on the characters. “My anticipation of the film was not to do an elegant, somewhat distant docudrama. I had zero interest in doing that. I want you to feel that you are underneath the skin of Jeffrey Wigand. I want you to step into Lowell Bergman's shoes. I did not want even to attempt to tell the story if I couldn't take you there, because that's the real experience to have. I'd be so disappointed in myself if I couldn't do that. The picture is two hours and 32 minutes of talking. Everything is dialogue. On the one hand you could view it as a horrible restriction; on the other hand you could view it as this great adventure. I mean, someone asked me early on, ‘How do you feel about filming all these phone calls?’ And I said, great -- you get to have two people talking in two different places. We shoot Jeffrey in his bedroom making a phone call, and where does he get Lowell? He gets him at a crime scene in New Orleans, with a dead body and a street full of mounted police, because Lowell's working on a story about the New Orleans P.D.”
The person who fascinated Michael Mann was the one portrayed by Russell Crowe. “Wigand as a character and a man is so human to me,” he remarked, “and, I found, so powerfully emotional, because he isn't a two-dimensional invention of fictive imagination. You would never sit in a room, by yourself, and imagine a scene in which he goes to New York for an interview and does not find it possible to bring himself to tell his wife. And yet, when it happens, you know that in the nanosecond before she trips to it, he is in agony, because of course he realizes it is inevitable that she'll have to know. He just couldn't tell her. And that's life, man -- that's what happens in life.”
As for trading fiction for fact, Mann answered, “It's a challenge to deal with these true-to-life issues. That's what made the material so exciting.”